A journalist covering clashes between Nigerian security forces and supporters of a Shia group in Abuja has been confirmed dead amid reports the death toll from the confrontation has risen to at least eight people.
Members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) rallied on Monday in the capital demanding the release of their leader Ibrahim el-Zakzaky – in detention since 2015 – following reports of worsening health conditions of both he and his wife, who is also being held.
A senior police officer deployed to coordinate security operations during the protest was shot dead, police said.
IMN said they had retrieved six bodies of their members shot dead during the clashes, but put the death toll higher.
“I can confirm that 11 of our members were shot dead during yesterday’s protest,” Abdulhamid Bello, an IMN leader, told Al Jazeera on Tuesday. “We are still counting the death toll,” Bello said.
Precious Owolabi, who worked for local broadcaster Channels Television, also succumbed to bullet wounds after he was shot while covering the protests. The 23-year-old was reportedly shot in the stomach.
“The management and staff of Channels Television are greatly saddened by the untimely and unfortunate death of such a promising journalist,” the media organisation said in a statement.
Tributes have poured in for the slain journalist on social media, while The Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) condemned his killing.
Nigerian authorities should investigate and ensure those responsible for his death are held accountable. https://t.co/VsSSRqMsug
— CPJ Africa (@CPJAfrica) July 22, 2019
— Kadaria Ahmed (@KadariaAhmed) July 22, 2019
I am saddened to hear of the death of many Nigerians yesterday in Abuja, including young Precious Owolabi, DCP Umar and members of the Shiite sect. Whatever strategy is being deployed by the State is clearly not working and needs to be rethought. May their souls Rest In Peace.
— Dr. Joe Abah (@DrJoeAbah) July 23, 2019
May the soul of Precious Owolabi rest in peace. May God console his family and comfort his friends. That could have been anyone, including any of our family members or friends who work around the 3 arms zone and environs in Abuja. Such a needless death. Resolve this madness now.
— Dr. Dípò Awójídé (@OgbeniDipo) July 22, 2019
“The death of Precious Owolabi signifies how brutish and short life has become in Nigeria and signposts the danger faced by journalists daily in carrying out the constitutional mandate of holding government and its officials accountable to Nigerians,” Emmanuel Ogbeche, NUJ chairman in Abuja, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, police said 54 Shia members who were arrested on Monday would soon be prosecuted.
“The suspects are undergoing interrogation and will be arraigned in court as soon as possible,” a police statement read.
The Shia movement condemned the arrest of some of its members from hospital beds while receiving treatment for bullet wounds sustained during the bloody clash.
“Some seriously injured persons that were taken to Abuja University Teaching Hospital in Gwagwalada; the police went there and took away about 11 people they shot during the protest,” a spokesman for the group Ibrahim Musa said.
The latest protest was a continuation of a series of demonstrations launched by the Shia group that resulted in bloody clashes with Nigerian police.
Several people were killed and more than 40 IMN members were arrested last week after the National Assembly building in Abuja was closed and gunshots fired during a demonstration.
Each side blamed the other for the gunfire.
Cheta Nwanze, a security analyst, called for caution to prevent the clashes escalating.
“We have consistently warned that the Nigerian state appears bent on radicalising the Shia, and the death of a policeman appears to confirm our worst fears,” Nwanze said.
“A group that has maintained discipline for [a] long [period] is one to be treated with caution, especially as they showed with simultaneous protests in Abuja, Kaduna and Lagos two weeks ago,” he added.
The group, which represents Nigeria’s minority Shia Muslims, says it will continue protesting until they secure the release of el-Zakzaky, an Islamic scholar who founded the IMN in the late 1970s.
El-Zakzaky was incarcerated by successive military governments. A number of court orders instructing the current government to release him and his wife have gone unheeded.
A presidential spokesman has told local media the IMN leader was being kept in custody “for his own safety”.
For more than three decades, the IMN has had regular run-ins with security forces in Nigeria while demonstrating against perceived religious persecution.
Nearly 400 members of the IMN have been killed by police in response to largely peaceful protests since 2015, according to Amnesty International.